BBC puts him in a class of his own

14 August 2017 12:05 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Book review - “Elmo Fernando, Kolamba Sita” 

Vijith Kumar Senaratne has written several books about notable media personalities and figures from the entertainment industry. “Elmo Fernando, Kolamba Sita…” (Elmo Fernando, from Colombo) is a new book by him which tries to capture the key moments in the life of one of the best known, and controversial, radio announcers of Sri Lanka.  

Elmo Fernando became controversial because of his unbiased reporting for the BBC’s Sinhala service Sandeshaya during the difficult civil war years. His reported impartially in the BBC tradition at a time when media reporting about the war – newspapers, radio and TV – were for the most part biased, sometimes even hysterical, and his factual reporting did not go down well with hard-line Sinhala listeners, or those politically naïve.   
The book is not a detailed biography. It is rather an anecdotal account within a biographical framework which manages to capture the key events in Elmo Fernando’s life, from his birth in Negombo to schooling and upbringing in Chilaw, where a teacher spotted his talent for public announcing and encouraged him to work in that direction, a route that would make him a household name not only in Sri Lanka but also take him to BBC headquarters in London.  

"The book is anecdotal, but not all of them are touching or funny. The one about his taxi ride to a Tony Blair meeting in London is touching. But some are bleak, including attempts at character assassination and other nasty (and futile) attempts to destroy his career. But what finally emerges is a portrait of an admirable man"

 

 

His first job was as a co-operative billing clerk. But Elmo Fernando owed his big break to a chance factor – speaker Shirley Corea, a relation of the SLBC’s Vernon Corea, was a neighbour. Elmo told Shirley Corea about his dream of becoming a radio announcer, and the result was a meeting with Vernon Corea, who put him under the tutelage of the legendary Karunaratne Abeysekara.   

He became a relief announcer at the SLBC (then CBC) in 1966. Life was tough at the beginning. Even after some time, his monthly earnings came to Rs. 88 whereas his boarding fees cost him Rs. 90. By 1970, Elmo Fernando was an experienced radio announcer working on contract basis. But political intrigue and back biting of the kind which plagues Sri Lanka’s government institutions soon became a bigger concern than the financial kind. Elmo Fernando underwent this nasty experience for the first time during the April 1971 JVP insurrection, when he was summarily ordered to leave the radio station by its Chairman Susil Munasinghe. Gossip had taken its effect. Elmo’s father-in-law, a former policeman, advised him not to leave home until things calmed down, advice which probably saved him from arrest or worse.  

 

  • Became controversial because of his unbiased reporting for the BBC’s Sinhala service Sandeshaya during the difficult civil war years

  • His long and successful tenure working for Sandeshaya earned him both fame and notoriety, depending on which side of the political spectrum his listeners were

  • He underwent this nasty experience for the first time during the April 1971 JVP insurrection, when he was summarily ordered to leave the radio station by its chairman 

  • He was recalled back to work on April 30, 1971 and the good news was delivered in person by the commercial service’s programme manager

Elmo was recalled back to work on April 30, 1971 and the good news was delivered in person by the commercial service’s programme manager. K. S. Wickremaratne. The conditions under which state radio employees worked is illustrated by this story – the holder of such an important post travelled from his office to Elmo’s home in Malabe on a bicycle.  

On July 1, 1971, Elmo became a permanent employee of the CBC. It’s political pressure cooker, fed by the country’s own volatile politics, eventually affected Elmo, to the point that he became a spokesman for the opposition UNP during its political rallies. The state radio became lawless during election night, when it became clear that the SLFP-coalition government was facing a massive defeat. Elmo Fernando refused to rub salt on the wounds by airing partisan songs.  

 

"The book is not a detailed biography. It is rather an anecdotal account within a biographical framework which manages to capture the key events in Elmo Fernando’s life, from his birth in Negombo to schooling and upbringing in Chilaw, where a teacher spotted his talent for public announcing and encouraged him to work in that direction"


The next stage in his broadcasting career came when he joined the Sinhala service of Veritas in the Philippines, thus widening his horizons. There, he met Dr. Graham Mitten of the BBC, a meeting which proved to be momentous. His long and successful tenure working for Sandeshaya earned him both fame and notoriety, depending on which side of the political spectrum his listeners were.

Sometimes, that reputation required him to go beyond his duties as a broadcaster; for example, when he was asked to join family members of disappeared servicemen on an emotional journey to Kilinochchi to meet Thamil Chelvam. This visit resulted in a backlash from the BBC, launched by employees of its Tamil service, proof that the SLBC has no monopoly on nasty politics.  

The book is anecdotal, but not all of them are touching or funny. The one about his taxi ride to a Tony Blair meeting in London is touching. But some are bleak, including attempts at character assassination and other nasty (and futile) attempts to destroy his career. But what finally emerges is a portrait of an admirable man – admirable because, while some of his peers and contemporaries may have been better, more popular announcers, they worked on relatively safe ground. The challenge Elmo Fernando faced working for the BBC puts him in a class of his own, and shows that he was made of a very hard metal indeed.  


Pics by Elmo Fernando and Vijith Kumara Senaratne

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